Pinellas Tourist Development Council considers funding future Tampa Bay Rays stadium and beach nourishment
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08/08/13 Janelle Irwin
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Pinellas County is eyeballing $6 million annually that will be freed up in 2015 when Tropicana Field gets paid off. The question on the minds of county commissioners and other tourism industry leaders Thursday during a Tourist Development Council meeting in Clearwater, was what to do if the Rays ask for that money to build a new stadium.

Commission chair Ken Welch said he’d support handing the 1 cent tourism bed tax back over to the Rays.

“Absolutely, the county’s been a partner with the City of St. Pete and major league baseball since the start. We’ve contributed more than $100 million to Tropicana Field debt service and if the Rays decide to ask us to continue that partnership, I’m very supportive of that.”

The county has had in place since 1973 a five percent tourism development tax that is paid on hotel and RV stays and condo rentals fewer than 6 months. The money is meant to pay for promoting and advertising the area, but in recent years rules have been changed to allow sports franchises to benefit. The Tampa Bay Rays started benefiting in 1993, even before they were the Devil Rays. But County Commissioner Susan Latvala said extending that debt service isn’t even on the table yet.

“Until there is a proposal before us, it’s just not on our radar. They’re talking about Tampa, they’re talking about other parts of Pinellas and life goes on.”

This week, St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster said he’d let the Rays start talking to Tampa about a possible move over the bay. And Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has mentioned a $100 million Community Redevelopment pot as a possible funding source. But according to the Tampa Tribune, that money is available over 30 years, not immediately, and isn’t likely to be enough for a $600 million stadium. In Pinellas County, the construction bill isn’t the only concern. Latvala echoed a chorus of others that taking care of the county’s beaches should be a priority.

“And so making sure that that beach is nourished and renourished as needed has to be our priority. We’ve always in the past had a lot of funding from the state and federal government. That’s becoming less and less available so, I think all of us agree that we need to have more of this money set aside for that purpose.”

Supporters of using public dollars in Pinellas County to help fund a new baseball stadium argue it won’t cost taxpayers any more money because it would just extend an expense the county and city already have. Beach nourishment already gets a portion of the bed tax – half of the third cent. But Pinellas County’s coastal manager, Andy Squires, agreed that money for beach maintenance could dry up quickly without the help of state and federal grants.

“Well, for the federal projects it’s been very successful. The big nourishment projects, it’s pretty much 60% federal and then we pay upfront 40% to get the job done, but we usually get back half of the state money. I would say we’re having a little bit we’re having a little bit of trouble getting back that 50% because the state has kind of, um, gotten a little more difficult to get their grants and the way they’re written there’s much less flexibility the last couple of years – I guess it’s due to the tightening up of the state. So, it’s getting a little more difficult and it’s a little more administrative time to make those grants work.”

Pinellas County Commissioners were also shocked to hear from county administrator Bob LaSala that they might be able to get their hands on even more tourism dollars.

“There is language in the state legislation that allows counties that have $600 million of sales subject to the bed tax to levy an additional 6th cent on the bed tax. The way that is done, county commission vote is taken and it would take five affirmative votes out of seven in order to do that.”

Another possible use for extra money was brought up by Commissioner Janet Long. She lamented the area’s lagging transit system and said it could turn off tourists. Her colleague, Commissioner Ken Welch agreed.

“Folks really expect, when you come to a major metropolitan area, to be able to use public transit to be able to get around very conveniently. We’re not at that point yet.”

But to use bed tax revenue for transit would require state legislation. Pinellas County voters will decide next year whether or not to charge an extra penny sales tax for transit. The sales tax hike would replace a portion of homeowners’ property taxes. The Greenlight Pinellas campaign includes possible light rail, improvements to bus routes and infrastructure and maybe some bus rapid transit. Welch said he’s optimistic voters will approve the tax swap.

“The legislature has been fickle on allowing counties and local governments to do anything that even looks like new revenue. So, I think this is something we need to try to handle at home first.”

Pinellas County Commissioners, representatives from Visit St. Pete Clearwater, the St. Pete Beach Chamber of Commerce as well as a handful of hoteliers all agreed that they need to have a list of criteria on how to divvy up whatever funds become available as debts are paid off. County Administrator Bob LaSala said they plan to meet at some point in the coming months at a lab at St. Pete College.

“It is a meeting center that uses a variety of tools to facilitate discussion and decision making.”

Another half million dollars per year will be freed up in 2021 when a Clearwater sports training facility gets paid off. Currently, the Tropicana debt service is paid entirely from the 4th bed tax cent. After 2015, only 80% of that could be allocated to any one sports facility. That would still translate to more than $100 million.



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